7 Ways Social Workers Help Disaster Survivors

We spoke with social workers around the country to learn what they do and how they help after a disaster or fire. Here’s what they shared:

1. What is a social worker?

Social workers help address psychological and social needs of people in stressful situations and help them find resources and services. They work with individuals, families and communities in a variety of places including hospitals, senior homes, community services, government organizations as well as with emergency and disaster relief organizations.

(For information about social workers in non-disaster situations, read 8 FAQs About Social Workers.)

2. How are social workers licensed?

Social workers are licensed by their state’s Department of Health, which offers licensing for a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree in social work (it varies by state). You can also ask for the social worker’s business card or ask to see proof of his or her credentials.

3. Why would I need a social worker after a natural disaster?

After a disaster, fire or other major loss, a social worker or a social services representative might meet with you to help with your recovery needs. Think of them as the referral resource – they connect you with help for with whatever you may need: temporary or housing shelter, food, clothing or financial aid.

They can also provide emotional support and education about the psychological impact of disaster and consequences.

WHN Expert TIP — In a Nutshell: Social workers “help people move forward with rebuilding their lives – guiding them to resources, helping them complete necessary claim forms and other paperwork and easing the transition from emergency shelters to more permanent housing. Social workers also provide ‘psychological first aid’ services to educate people about typical [life] stresses and support them as they face their losses and work to rebuild their lives.” John D. Weaver, LCSW, and publisher of Eye of the Storm, Inc., a website dedicated to helping victims recover from disasters.

4. What type of assistance can social workers provide?

If your entire family is in need of support and assistance, a social worker will work in a “family systems context,” says Frank Campbell, LCSW and executive director of the Crisis Center Foundation in Baton Rouge, LA.

“This means we value the whole environment, how each person plays a role in helping a member of the family regain their personal balance because that balances the family as well,” says Campbell. “Social workers are great at exploring a family’s informal resources, making them aware of resources that they have and have forgotten to contact such as family and friends, as well as helping the family to use formal resources and resources for long-term care.”

5. How can I find a social worker to help me?

After large disasters, community service centers and shelters become sites for one-stop assistance, information, referral, and emotional support. Organizations that employ social workers include:

WHN Expert TIP – Dial 2-1-1: “You can find direct assistance for referral information to disaster recovery, childcare and aging services by dialing at any time during the day. 2-1-1 is easy to remember telephone number that, where available, connects people with important community services and volunteer opportunities,” says Campbell.

6. How often will I meet with the social worker?

This depends on your situation – it may be one meeting or it may be several follow-up meetings over a few months.

“American Red Cross mental health workers, for example, might have one or two contacts and possibly one or two follow-ups,” says Weaver. “If ongoing services are needed, a referral is made to existing services. Following presidentially declared disasters, FEMA grants are sometimes available and they provide funds for outreach workers who can work in the community up to the anniversary of an event.”

Extra resources and case management services might be available for a longer period of time if your community was strongly affected and if it may take many years to rebuild or recover (such as New Orleans and the surrounding area since Katrina).

7. What should I ask the social worker at our first meeting?

Here are some questions but feel free to add your own:

  • What help is available and where can I go to access the various relief services?
  • Can you help me find resources that can assist me and meet my cultural/language needs?
  • How long will it take my family and me to get back to feeling normal again?
  • What do I do for support when I am overwhelmed and cannot come in to see you? (Ask about resources that are available after-hours such as crisis lines, emergency after-hour services, additional help services, etc.)
  • What are the things we can do to be better prepared for future disasters?

For More Information

To learn more about social workers and the services that they provide, here are a few additional resources:

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) — is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, with 153,000 members. The Resources tab has links for specific assistance and information.

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) — offers a complete list of nonprofit and faith-based organizations that often offer assistance after large disasters.